The Guardian’s Ned Beauman is re-reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities to mark the books fiftieth anniversary. While doing so, he comments that Jane Jacobs’s book captures not just the rich density of urban life, but the craft of fiction.
Here are a few passages from his article:
Rereading: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
Jacobs, who died in 2006, never published any fiction herself, but she certainly had a novelist’s sensitivity to human relations. She argues in Death and Life, for instance, that one of the paradoxical advantages of urban existence is privacy. In contrast to the suburbs, a dense neighbourhood has lots of convenient places to stop and chat, so you can be on friendly terms with dozens of people who live or work near your home without ever feeling the slightest obligation to invite any of them inside for tea:
“Under this system, it is possible in a city-street neighbourhood to know all kinds of people without unwelcome entanglements, without boredom, necessity for excuses, explanations, fears of giving offence, embarrassments respecting impositions or commitments, and all such paraphernalia of obligations which can accompany less limited relationships.”
If these things had truly been lost to New York, we would never have got Seinfeld, but the point still stands. How many professional city planners have considered everyday life so carefully that they’ve remembered to take all the nanophysics of social awkwardness into account?
Plenty of the requirements Jacobs sets out for building a healthy and diverse urban community can be applied with real success to building a vivid and plausible fictional community. Death and Life, in other words, is a sort of accidental creative writing textbook – perhaps appropriately so, because Jacobs’s beloved West Village was itself full of writers. Early on, Jacobs says:
“Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvellous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of pavement use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance.”
But the art form of the city is not really dance. The art form of the city, described so well in that passage, is the novel.
[Originally posted on Jane’s Walk Phoenix.]